Wine Crush Dodges Most Drought Threats

Reports from the harvest in Sonoma and Napa counties

by Jane Firstenfeld
A crew from Jordan Vineyard & Winery harvests Cabernet Sauvignon.
San Rafael, Calif.—As the wine grape harvest wraps up on California’s North Coast, we’re completing our month-long tour of vineyards throughout the state. Some growers report that harvest is complete before picking would normally begin.

The drought brought challenges of course, but in general growers were happy to bring in high-quality crop, with some reduced tonnages because of smaller set and berry sizes. Some Sonoma growers reported larger crops. As in other regions, the most notable pests were voracious vertebrates hungry for juicy fruit: Bears, turkeys and ground squirrels devoured Zinfandel and Cabernet grapes.

Sonoma County
A Sept. 9 dispatch from Sean Carroll at Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Vintners reported: “Harvest season started earlier than normal, first grapes being picked July 29 for sparkling wines. Since then, growers and winemakers throughout Sonoma County have been holding a steady pace on grape picking for still wine varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir and others. With the moderate, cool-climate weather and typical Sonoma Coast fog patterns throughout most of August, fruit maturity on the vines slowed down and allowed the grapes to ripen at an optimal pace.”

On Sept. 16, Barry Hoffner at Silverwood Ranch in Sonoma’s new Pine Mountain Cloverdale Peak AVA, weighed in from the county’s highest elevation appellation.

“We have consistently tracked two to three weeks earlier than normal from bud break through véraison all the way to harvest. This will be the earliest harvest that we know of on Pine Mountain, with likely 100% of all wine grapes harvested before October. Normally, Pine Mountain Cloverdale Peak picks well into October. By mid-September, roughly 50% of the wine grapes were harvested, with the 5% of white wine grapes on the mountain all picked in August.

“Though hang times will be a bit less than in previous years, the quality of crop has been reported exceptional due to consistent warm weather throughout the growing season from bloom through harvest. Silverwood Ranch had consistent ripening throughout all blocks. Late rains in March and April allowed delayed irrigation and good canopy growth. Once through véraison, consistent warm weather without dramatic changes, helped to create a very high-quality crop.

“A few growers reported challenges managing imbalances between sugar (Brix) spikes while waiting for acids to decline after one particularly warm weekend mid-September.

“In terms of yields, this looks to be a good size crop. Given the earlier ripening, growers were able to carry reasonable crop loads without worry about not ripening. Also, good canopy growth from the late rains allowed enough photosynthesis to support larger yields while retaining high quality,” Hoffner said.

Imagery Estate Winery reported that its Upper Ridge Vineyard on Pine Mountain Cloverdale Peak, part of Silverwood Ranch, was able to use 25% less water than previous years due to an upgrade in technology, while still getting record crop sizes for a few of the 11 varieties they farm.

Labor shortages and compressed harvest intervals between varieties forced some growers to schedule picks one week in advance.

In the Alexander Valley, Jordan Vineyard & Winery reported its first pick (Merlot) on Sept. 2, then Russian River Chardonnay two days later. By Sept. 16, harvest was 50% complete.

On Sept. 22, winemaker Rob Davis reported, “I’d say we are 85% complete on harvest with a heavier crop size than last year by about 5%-10%.” Only three vineyards still need to be picked, and those likely will come in next week.

In Windsor, harvest began for Martinelli Winery on Aug. 22 for Pinot; estate-grown Chardonnay destined for other wineries started coming in Aug. 16. “We started seven days earlier than last year,” according to executive vice president Regina Martinelli.

By Sept. 9, she said, “We have picked about 35% of all our vineyards. Harvest will end for Martinelli Winery with Syrah by Oct. 1, if not the end of September. The Martinelli Estate Vineyards’ Syrah harvest is by the first week in October.

“Volume is close to 2013, on average: Just a little under for Zinfandel; Pinot is right on, and Chardonnay a bit more,” she said. The drought caused no problems with volume. “In fact it actually helped the quality with the added stress. There were smaller berries, which creates more intense flavors and concentration. Less juice per berry, yet still good-sized clusters so the volume will be there.”

Martinelli commented that the dry season “helped in the short-term. The long-term we don’t know. We water the vines after we harvest to help put them to bed. It helps relieve the stress of harvest.”

Labor availability grows harder every year, she said, “But we go through the H2A government program, which is very helpful. We legally contract workers, give them housing and bring them up from the border to work; they in return are contracted to only work for us. It costs a lot to do this, and it’s always worth it: We are guaranteed to have a workforce, and we can be flexible when and where we harvest next. Since we bring in our own labor force, we are able to prune, do trellis management, sucker, drop fruit and harvest when we think it’s best to do it.”

Later spring rains and a humid summer brought more rot pressure. “There are smaller berries, but good sized clusters.…It seemed like a cooler weather pattern at summer’s end, which allowed for longer hang time and an extended growing season, good for slower sugar accumulation and slower acidity drop. This is where balance starts for the wine,” she commented.

Lack of winter rainfall in January and February caused anxiety. “We were thinking we’d have to start irrigating, get the ground wet, to help with frost protection.” Relief arrived with early spring rains: “We got enough to push through summer for grape ripening.”

Napa County
Remi Cohen at Cliff Lede Vineyards in the Stags Leap District contributed a report early in the season. On Sept. 8, she said, “We are excited about what we’ve experienced so far for the 2014 vintage. Our harvest got off to a shaky start—literally. Our first day of harvest was Aug. 25, the day after the earthquake.

“We were fortunate not to have any damage from the earthquake, due to our new facility built in 2005, our distance from the epicenter, and maintaining our barrels only one or two high in our cave. We were able to begin harvest as planned,” she said.

“Sept. 9 will be the last day of our white grape harvest. The flavors in our Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle that are grown throughout Napa Valley have been exceptional. We began the harvest of our Stags Leap District estate with Merlot Sept. 2. We have small berries in our Bordeaux varieties from the mild stress imposed on the vines due to the drought. Small berries are ideal for producing wines with remarkable intensity and concentration.

“Mild August and early September weather slowed ripening, allowing phenolic maturity and flavors to develop and slowing sugar accumulation in this early vintage,” she said.

Cabernet harvest started the following week, and is expected to be complete by early to mid-October.

Winemakers Mike Trujillo and Molly Hill’s dispatch from 38,000-case Sequoia Grove Vineyards on Sept. 9 revealed more details.

“Harvest began with Sauvignon Blanc from warmer areas. Our single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler appellation in Yountville came in toward the end of the Sauvignon Blanc run, which quickly rolled into the first Chardonnays from our Carneros area.

“Although we started earlier than past harvests, we have had cool mornings with fog, delaying ripening of later red varietals. The harvest could stretch out into mid- to late October, as is normal.

“Chardonnay volume looks to be the third year of 10%-15% above average tonnage. Set is solid in most Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but…it remains to be seen how those clusters will weigh out when they finally reach the winery.”

The winemakers had not heard of shortages in labor availability, but said, “Our biggest cliffhanger this year was water availability. Fourteen months with virtually no rain, on top of already dry seasons past, is a scary proposition.

“The Napa/Sonoma region was blessed by two storms that eventually saturated the ground in early spring. This rain couldn’t have fallen at a more perfect time—to saturate the soil right before bud break got the vines off to a good start and helped develop full canopies.”

Steve Moulds, president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and owner of Moulds Family Vineyards, was wrapping up harvest in the Oak Knoll District on Oct.1.

“Typically, we begin in mid-October,” he said. “This year, we started picking on Sept. 18.” Early bud break and bloom got the season off to a fast start, he reported. Soil moisture was not high. Moulds put a deficit-irrigation regimen to good use, grateful for February rains and adequate groundwater after several years of rigorous battles to control invasive pests, quarantined areas were reduced in size.

“Next year, we hope to be rid of European grapevine moth. Glassy-winged sharpshooters and vine mealybugs were not so strong, and we’re keeping our eye on Red Blotch. I ripped out 3 acres of vines last year and intend to rogue-out individual vines,” Moulds said.
“NVG is working with University of California, Davis, researchers to figure out Red Blotch vectors.”

He predicted his tonnage to be reduced 10%-15% from 2013 and 2012 weights. “Set was smaller this year, and we didn’t do as much thinning as in past years” he said.

Earthquake damage in his vineyards was limited to broken irrigation lines, which were repaired within a week.

Moulds Vineyards was plagued by a new pest this year: Ground squirrels abandoned their woodsy homes to invade the vineyards, climb the vines and devoured whole clusters of fruit.

The vineyard manager devised an effective defense. He fabricated straw scarecrows clad in haz-mat suits and baseball caps, and installed motion sensors that emit eerie sounds. Planted in the corners of vineyards, these apparently frightened both the squirrels and at least one vineyard worker. During an overnight pick, he fled in terror after one of these “ghosts” began to shriek.

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